<
>

All Blacks unleash Fifita as Wallabies count days to Pocock's return

Vaea Fifita MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, we witnessed the arrival of yet another extraordinary All Blacks back-rower.

In Vaea Fifita's first Test start in the New Zealand No 6 jersey he succeeded in blindsiding Argentina in New Plymouth with several demoralising runs, excellent work at the breakdown and precise tackling near the ruck. His dynamic second half individual try was sheer class. Some in the New Zealand media are already describing it as one of the greatest All Blacks back-rower tries.

When possessing game-breakers like Fifita you can finish off opponents even when many of your teammates are out of sorts.

The All Blacks have not found top gear this year, but have been saved by consistent and comprehensive performances from their back-row. This is hardly surprising when the team boasts the world's best No 8 in Kieran Read, and continue to produce a steady stream of quality openside flankers- enjoying the luxury of choosing between Ardie Savea, Matt Todd and Sam Cane- who are all making life after Richie McCaw passable.

Then onto the Wallabies-Springboks Test in Perth, and where we again witnessed what happens to teams that don't have a world-class back-row. For the second match running, the Wallabies were over-run by their opponents- and a great deal of that has to do with who they have up front. Numerous Wallabies forwards may be okay Super Rugby performers, but they are just borderline Test candidates.

The Wallabies lack punch in their scrum, their lineout and in their back-row. They lack presence. They lack forwards who can make a difference. Their set-piece work is not consistent enough; their breakdown work is only fair to middling, and with that comes an inability to hold on to a considerable lead. Their scrum was exposed by the All Blacks in Dunedin, and was one of the key reasons why New Zealand rebounded from a 17-0 deficit to win 35-29.

Against South Africa it was even worse. Australia lost several crucial pressure scrums, while their lineout work was way off, and so the Springboks bounced back from being down 20-10 to levelling the scores at 23-all. Apart from wayward throwing which saw them having only a 63 percent lineout success rate compared to the Springboks 92 percent, the Wallabies were also penalised three times for tackling their lineout opponents while in the air.

The worst indiscretion came in the final minutes when the Wallabies needed to show discipline if they were to break the deadlock. However blindside flanker Ned Hanigan ridiculously grabbed Springboks jumper Lodewyk De Jager in the air to be penalised, thwarting the Wallabies' momentum.

As disconcerting was how the Wallabies scrum disintegrated in the 66th minute, enabling the Springboks to charge 50 metres downfield and take the lead. By this stage No.8 Sean McMahon was off the field and his replacement Jack Dempsey looked completely lost as the Springboks charged straight through the middle of their pack to bound merrily towards the Wallabies posts.

Maybe that's why after the game Wallabies coach Michael Cheika talked about how his team needs to be more mature. It also needs players to step up. Opportunities must be grasped.

Hanigan has now played six Tests, but has yet to make an impact. A blindside flanker must be prominent, but Hanigan often appears to be just going through the motions. Hanigan did a bit more than usual in Perth, but a quiet first-half, an inability to make breaks and missing four tackles is not good enough. He is one of the luckiest Wallabies Test selections of recent years, because there wasn't much on show during the Waratahs' Super Rugby campaign this season to indicate he would make a difference at international level. And he hasn't.

At least Hanigan wasn't the worst defensive culprit in Perth, with Tevita Kuridrani finishing with five missed tackles.

Although the openside flanker Michael Hooper had individual moments of excellence, he is sorely missing his tag-team partner David Pocock, who takes over much of the tough, physical work at the breakdown, enabling the Wallaby captain to be more prominent in open play.

Pocock is not your perfect No 8, but he is far more preferable to what is currently on offer. If Pocock was around, you would move McMahon to his more natural position on the blindside and the back-row combination immediately looks better.

Many in Australian Rugby are understandably counting down the days until Pocock's sabbatical ends.